From Minsk, Belarus, to Moscow to College Park, Maryland, and a number of places in between, Eva Alexandrova has had quite the tennis career.
She was ranked No. 118 in the International Tennis Federation’s junior rankings when she signed with Maryland, making her one of the highest-rated recruits in program history, and certainly the highest-rated player in head coach Daria Panova’s five-year tenure. Panova has led a successful, but not-yet-finished turnaround of the once downtrodden program, but has never had a player of Alexandrova’s caliber. Now she’s got the superstar that can take this squad to the next level.
Before even stepping on a court as a collegiate player, Alexandrova might be the best player on Maryland’s roster and could even play in the No. 1 spot as a freshman when competition starts in the spring.
About two miles east of campus, the Maryland tennis team practices at the College Park Tennis Club, separated from the public only by a chain-link fence that stretches around three sides of Court 1. The near side’s fence has a black banner with “MARYLAND” in the uniform “Pride” font that is so common to Maryland Athletics. It’s a beautiful September Friday afternoon, so almost every court is full.
Alexandrova isn’t here yet. She has class into the middle of the afternoon on Fridays—one of the downsides of being a freshman athlete.
On Court 1, Kansas State transfer Millie Stretton and Kate Yemelyanenka are playing a quick match to end their practice. They’re from the United Kingdom and Belarus, respectively. Japan’s Saya Usui and Oregon’s Zoe Kulkarni are on Court 2 doing the same. The two longest-tenured members of the team, senior Ekaterina Tour and junior Arnelle Sullivan, are far away on Court 3 doing drills.
A few minutes later, those present take a break to stretch and catch their breath. Alexandrova walks in.
Being a student-athlete in college isn’t as glorious as one might think. Sure, there’s the fun of playing sports every day and the traveling that comes with interscholastic competition, but there’s also a reason “student” comes first in “student-athlete.”
Among other reasons, Maryland’s academic standing—particularly, as the daughter of two mechanical engineers, its engineering program—convinced Alexandrova that College Park was the right place for her to further her academic and athletic careers.
Her interest in aerospace engineering is a product of how much she’s traveled to play in international tournaments.
“I flew a lot,” Alexandrova said. “I mean during all my life, I think. Especially in recent years. Because I traveled a lot abroad to international tournaments. I was really interested in how all the things connected in the airplane, especially when they land and when they take off.”
An international tournament she played in when she was in middle school would end up being one of the main reasons Alexandrova ended up at Maryland all these years later. It was there, in Minsk, that she and Yemelyanenka met and subsequently became best friends.
“Kate is my best friend,” Alexandrova said with a laugh. “I was very excited [she was here] and I wanted to be at the same university as she. She told me about the team, the coaches, how they treat their players, so I was very excited and happy to come here.”
Having a friend on the team who’s a year older is making the transition to America, college life and college tennis a bit easier. On a seven-person roster, with five international players from three continents, team chemistry may be hard to come by, but Alexandrova’s upbeat attitude has made her transition onto the team fairly seamless.
“I’m really happy that she came here because we’ve known each other for a long time and she’s a really great person,” Yemelyanenka said. “She’s a great friend who always puts a smile on my face.”
As Stretton and the rest of the squad comes off the courts, she and Alexandrova meet just in front of the bleachers and execute a well thought-out, complicated handshake. It needs a little bit of work, but it’s getting there.
“We’re getting so good at that!” Stretton laughs.
Off-the-court team chemistry is an important component of any sport, but tennis—with the exception of doubles—is an individual sport. It’s just you, the ball, a few lines, the net and your opponent. When it all comes down to it, it’s skill that ultimately wins.
As Alexandrova takes the court to warm up for practice, it’s Panova’s turn to talk. On the small, three-rowed bleachers next to Court 1, Panova sits and answers question after question as Alexandrova practices killing lob shots past Tour. The sound of the ball leaving her racquet echoes throughout the complex. Though she’s wearing dark aviator-style sunglasses, it’s easy to tell Panova’s eyes never leave her star player.
“I think she definitely has a lot of power,” Panova says as a smile creeps onto her face. “Her strokes are really powerful and she’s a really aggressive player.”
That aggressive style is how Alexandrova has played practically her whole career, thanks to a youth coach. Since she was 6, she practiced with the same coach, who shaped her on-court character and taught her how to play.
“She taught me to play aggressive tennis,” Alexandrova said. “An aggressive style, I consider the best way to win—not to play in defense every time.”
Her aggression shows as she powers alternating forehands and backhands from an attacking position into the back corners of her opponent’s side of the court.
“She has her style, and she’s comfortable with it,” Panova says. “She has her identity, even though she’s very young at 18 and a lot of people who just get to college are learning more about their tennis. I think she has her identity and she knows how she wants to play.”
Most everybody else is finished with their practice now, and has gathered on the bleachers to just hang around before heading back to campus. Though they carry on their own conversations about whatever is going on in their lives, their eyes fleet from each other to Alexandrova and back again. It’s almost distracting, the power with which she hits the ball, and how effortless it looks.
This team has made great strides in the last several years, but still hasn’t finished better than fifth in the Big Ten. With Alexandrova smashing shots past opponents, this year, or any of the next four, may be the year for a historically high finish for the Terrapins.